City Paper is not for tourists
We are not going to McDonald’s. The day after Filmfest DC concluded with a screening of his Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock chuckles at how many interviewers have tried to take him to the Golden Arches. “Just about—a lot of them,” he says. “It’s not a real original idea.”
It’s also not a very palatable idea. For a month last year, Spurlock consumed nothing that wasn’t purchased at a McDonald’s—“not even a Tic Tac,” he affirms. The 33-year-old New Yorker even filled his refrigerators at home and in his office with McDonald’s water, so he wouldn’t break his regimen with some other brand. When a New York Times reporter dragged him to Mickey D’s recently, Spurlock says, “I bought a bottle of water. That’s about all I can stomach from McDonald’s anymore.”
A former ballet student who almost qualifies as gangly, Spurlock still sports the Fu Manchu moustache he has in the movie. But he has lost the 25 pounds he gained on a steady diet of Big Macs, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, and french fries—meals he required himself to supersize whenever he was asked. (That turned out to be nine times.) The sold-out Filmfest screening of his Michael Moore–style personal documentary went well, Spurlock reports—but then, he has yet to meet an audience that didn’t like it.
“They don’t really know what to expect,” he says of film-festival attendees. “They hear, ‘Guy eats McDonald’s for 30 days,’ so they come in kind of underwhelmed. Which is good, because the film delivers so much more.”
Super Size Me, which opened commercially in Washington and six other cities last week, has been publicized heavily—if inadvertently—by McDonald’s itself. “The elimination of supersizing in March was incredible,” exults Spurlock. “Six weeks after the movie premiered at Sundance. The rollout of the adult ‘active’ Happy Meal, which is happening the day before the movie opens. Amazing coincidences! They say these were things in the works. They’d been talking about these. I’m sure they had. But has the film kind of expedited the process? You can’t help but wonder that.”
The movie makes it apparent that 30 days in McDonaldland did not agree with Spurlock. In addition to the weight gain, his liver turned temporarily to what one of his three doctors termed “pâté.” Spurlock says he would also get “massive migraines. They started about Day 12 or so, almost at the two-week mark. These headaches could only be alleviated by eating. I’d eat and they’d go away. Already my body was starting to get very attuned to the fat, the sugar, or the caffeine, whichever of those it was. My body wanted it, and it hurt when I didn’t have it. And I started getting massive cravings. I would eat, and just a few hours later, I’d be hungry again.”
Super Size Me audiences become quite intimate with Spurlock’s body. Among the scenes that make some viewers squirm are a rectal exam and an interview with the filmmaker’s girlfriend, Alexandra Jamieson—who happens to be a vegan chef—in which she details his diminished virility. Spurlock says he never considered excluding either sequence, although others suggested it.
“You’re going on a journey with me, and along the way crazy things happen,” he says. “Things you never thought would happen, from the rectal exam to me getting sick, to Alex talking about our sex life. I wanted to be truthful about what was happening to me. The first time I experience it, that’s the first time I want you to experience it.”
Spurlock remembers when cinematographer Scott Ambrozy, who conducted the interview with Jamieson, showed it to the director and the film’s two editors, Stela Gueorguieva and Julie Lombardi. The two women told Spurlock, “‘Morgan, you can’t put that in the movie. Alex saying these things? You can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course that has to go in the movie!’ I mean, how many guys are taking the little blue pill, and maybe if they just kind of turned their diets around—you know?
“There was a guy that I spoke to in L.A.,” Spurlock adds, “who came up with a great slogan: ‘If you can’t get it up, give it up.’ Maybe we need to give up the high-fat, high-sugar, high-caffeine diets. I’m not sure what made [the reduced potency] happen. But it was…it was not good.”
The director visited “about 15” states while filming the movie, and one of his first stops was D.C. His primary interest was meeting local law professor John Banzhaf III, who supported anti-McDonald’s lawsuits filed by two overweight teenagers—legal actions, ultimately dismissed, that originally inspired Super Size Me. “I thought he was definitely a character that we had to talk to. We called him, and of course he was very eager to take part.”
Yet Spurlock didn’t speak only to lawyers, nutritionists, and public-policy wonks. He also stopped people at random, and he didn’t find a one without an opinion on the topic. “Everybody has something to say about McDonald’s,” he notes. “One in four people in America eats fast food every day. One out of eight people in America has worked at a McDonald’s—which is crazy. The only organization in the United States that trains more people than McDonald’s is the U.S. Army. So McDonald’s has affected all of our lives in some way.”
Remarkably, Spurlock never resorted to using a hidden camera, either in a McDonald’s or in the school cafeterias where he investigated the effects of fast food on the country’s pudgy, listless youth. “We were very upfront about what we were doing. We would walk in, and they would ask, ‘What are you doing?’ And we’d say, ‘We’re shooting a movie about me and eating McDonald’s and traveling around the country.’ And people would be like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. This is the manager, Bob.’ In New York, which is a very media-paranoid city, they’d be like, ‘What are you doing? You can’t shoot in here. You have to turn that off.’ But once you left New York, it was a completely different story.”
The director assumes that the burger chain has a policy against filming on its premises. “But you know what? If I was working in a McDonald’s and making $5.25 an hour, how much flak am I going to give somebody? If you’re the manager maybe. These are just kids in there, trying to make a buck.”
Although Super Size Me is more comprehensive than many viewers expect, it doesn’t cover every aspect of the fast-food phenomenon. Some sequences were relegated to the upcoming DVD, for reasons of either time or tone. A visit to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, for example, was cut, Spurlock says, “because it was very somber” and “really started to take the momentum away from the film.”
A discussion of McDonald’s detritus was also saved for the DVD, although Spurlock hasn’t forgotten the statistics. “I generated over the course of one month, just me, about 13 bags of garbage,” he says. “Say somebody goes there only once a day, and multiply that by 46 million people, which is the number of people in the world that they feed every day, McDonald’s by itself generates enough garbage every day to fill the Empire State Building. And that’s only one fast-food chain on one day.”
Before Super Size Me, Spurlock’s production company, the Con, produced 53 episodes of MTV’s I Bet You Will, which he calls “the first show ever to go from the Web to television.” Among the director’s favorite episodes was one in which “I bet a Wall Street trader $700 to sell us the clothes off his back. We left him in his underwear and his shoes at 8 in the morning, before he was supposed to go in and go to work. But MTV wanted an afternoon teenybop-kid gross-out show”—which is why the Con also persuaded someone to cut his hair off, mix it with butter, and then eat the combo.
“It was great entree for me into network television,” Spurlock says, “but more importantly, with the money that we made we were able to make this film. So karmically I’ve come full circle. I think my slate is clean now.”
Yet the director is messing with his karma again, having made a deal with FX to produce a new series, 30 Days. The show is designed to deal “with socially relevant issues in an entertaining way. A show that does what I did—takes someone and subjects them to something or puts them in a situation for 30 days. Because over the course of a month, you will reach breaking points that are really…personal. We’ll dive into socially relevant issues like sexuality and poverty and religion. I really want this show to be a catalyst for change, just like this film has [been].”
One change that took place before the release of Super Size Me was McDonald’s introduction of a more “healthy” Chicken McNugget. Spurlock’s film includes a disturbing animated segment on the production of the old McNuggets, so surely he has an opinion on the new white-meat variety? “They say they’re better. I don’t know,” he says. Then he laughs. “I really can’t tell you.” —Mark Jenkins